The Emperor’s new depth

Sherwood Smith inquires into the matter of ‘writing deep’, and there is evident puzzlement on all hands about what ‘deep’ means. As you might guess from the title of this essai, I am not much taken with the idea of ‘deep’ writing in fiction. I therefore propose to examine the Emperor’s garments one by one, until I find a windcheater that actually, you know, cheats the wind. This turns out to be a longish task, so I shall take it one heading at a time. To begin with:

1. Armchair philosophizing as a substitute for character development.

This, I suspect, is what most adolescents (and nearly all college students) are likely to mean when they call a book ‘deep’. As in: ‘Who-o-o-a . . . that’s, like, so deep.’ Ayn Rand is so deep, and so are Camus and Vonnegut, and various other hardy campus perennials. Adolescence and early adulthood are naturally given to a kind of ill-focused antinomianism, which, having been trained to do so by its elders in the media and academe, readily expresses itself in scorn poured out upon ‘the metaphysics of savages’, as one of those elders notoriously called what other people call ‘common sense’. We are taught early in life that the earth is really round, though ‘obviously’ flat, and that it is really in motion, though ‘obviously’ stationary, and that ‘obviously’ solid matter is really mostly empty space between atoms. All of these teachings are half-truths, and the short half of the truth at that.

There are several obvious proofs of the roundness of the earth, from ships’ masts and lunar eclipses and the like, which even the most savage metaphysician can verify. From a spot quite near my house, on a clear day, I can see the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains, but not the lower slopes or even the quite high foothills leading up to the front range. Everything below 2000 metres or thereabouts is hidden from my view by the curvature of the earth, and if I travel west, it gradually heaves over the horizon and into view. The earth is quite obviously curved, if I give the matter just a little thought.

The ‘obviously’ stationary earth really is quite stationary with respect to ourselves, and that, as anyone versed in relativity can attest, is what chiefly matters. Motion is not a property of a body in itself, but only a property that bodies have in relation to one another. Quite obviously the sun and the other planets are in motion with respect to the earth and each other; nobody ever denied this. For most everyday purposes, such as navigation, it suits us to take the earth as our stationary point of reference, which is what the geocentric ancients did. When we want to work out the patterns in the motions of celestial bodies relative to one another, we take the sun as our stationary point, because it greatly simplifies the maths, but that (pace Galileonis) is not a law of physics.

As for the empty space between atoms, any quantum physicist will tell you that this space is not empty at all, but seething with electromagnetic fields and awe-inspiring energies — which is why solid bodies cannot pass through one another. The ‘emptiness’ is an artifact of a naive model of the atom, picturing the electrons as tiny bits of grit flying in planetary orbits about a nuclear pebble: a model that was completely discredited nearly a century ago, and is now used only by grade-school science teachers trying to feed their charges upon the proper intellectual pabulum, without actually knowing any real science themselves.

But all these half-truths instil into our unformed minds the idea that the obvious is something to be sneered at, and that anything we can see for ourselves will presently be disproved by that arch trickster-god, Science. So when some clever duck comes along with a so-called novel filled with sermons on the evil of altruism, or the futility of human effort, or the nonexistence of physical reality except as a socially agreed-upon construct, or any other such manifest nonsense, the adolescent mind is liable to accept it uncritically because it is manifest nonsense. This is the New Sense, we intuitively feel, that supersedes the despised Common Sense we were always taught to distrust. But this intuition is unsound because it is based upon a thoroughly false premise. If we examined our reasoning in the cold conscious daylight of logic, we would see the error soon enough; but intuition works in the dark, and we trust it even when we should not.

At its worst, this tendency tempts us to believe in wild conspiracy theories, which is why (for instance) The Da Vinci Code is taken by many persons as a serious and damaging attack on the Catholic Church, and not as a silly pot-boiler of a thriller based on a mishmash of half-baked Gnostic aphorisms. But if your teachers have always told you that your senses are liars, and the truth is never what it seems, you may well pick up Dan Brown’s rather unhinged novel and mistake it for Revelation. I have known many potentially good minds spoilt from early youth by this pernicious habit.

The worst thing about amateur philosophizing in novels is that it is so easy to do badly, and so uninteresting when done well. There are, in effect, two kinds of philosophers, those who set out to examine the obvious and discover how we know it to be true, and those who set out to disprove the obvious and substitute their own system of the universe. This is very nearly the same thing as saying that there are real philosophers and sophistical quacks. There is a very famous bit of criticism that is inflicted upon nearly all neophyte writers, for it is nearly always true, and attributed to any Great Name that comes handy (most often Samuel Johnson, who did not say it): ‘Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.’ This is still truer in philosophy. A writer of fiction is allowed, indeed required, to invent her own world, which may be quite different from the real universe and is at any rate a great deal simpler. A philosopher who invents his own world is either a lunatic or a con man.

To be both good and original in philosophy is a rare mark of greatness, and nobody can accomplish it except by building a tiny new addition to the great edifice of existing knowledge. A philosopher who rejects the basic rules of logic is like a mathematician who rejects the multiplication table. Unfortunately, the philosopher will do better in the world than the mathematician, for most people have at least a little training in mathematics, and none in philosophy. If an architect miscalculates the loads and stresses when designing a building, the building will not stand, and any fool can see it fall down. But if a politician designs his political system from a bogus philosophy, it may take a courageous and discerning mind to recognize that the failures of the system are intrinsic to the design. Marxists have been making excuses for their fallen temples since 1848, and some unhappy souls are doing it still.

When a novelist bases her world on the original (but not good) philosophy of a plausible crank, her book may be full of interesting ideas and clever arguments, which may cause the unwary reader to consider it deep, or even so deep, like Atlas Shrugged. It will be noticeably short on characters that behave like human beings, for the philosophy of her world is not one that real people can live by; but an inexperienced reader may not notice this.

For high-school kids, and the slightly overaged kids who have gone straight on to university at eighteen, have a very limited and cockeyed experience of the human condition. They have been sheltered, as convicts are sheltered: isolated from the normal laws of human society, because they are confined in a place ruled by the Law of the Jungle. Convicts are subjected to this treatment because they have shown themselves unwilling to abide by the gentler laws outside of the prisons. Children are subjected to it because everybody agrees that schools are necessary, but nobody can agree on how they should be run. Our school systems are built on a jury-built compromise between half a dozen mutually incompatible ideologies. Nobody has the authority to fulfil his responsibilities, and every decision made is liable to be unmade as soon as it offends some powerful vested interest: and so power devolves upon the bullies and fanatics, who don’t care.

It is no part of my job to suggest a solution to the manifold problems of the education system. I merely wish to point out that if you educate a child in a bizarre mix of unworkable philosophies, you will almost certainly produce an adult who has trouble telling sense from nonsense, and who prefers a colourful and consoling lie to a dull and daunting truth. The Philosopher’s Stone was supposed to turn dross into gold. If you have a bit of worthless rock that you want to pass off as the genuine Philosopher’s Stone, you will have an easier time if your victim cannot tell gold from pyrite or pinchbeck. Fortunately, such people are easy to find, especially among the young, who have not yet learned to replace the muddled philosophy of the schools with ‘the metaphysics of savages’. And they will pay you in the coin of their highest accolade, worth every bit as much as the counterfeit you sold them. They will bow to you in awe, and say that you are, like, so deep.


2. Deliberate obfuscation passed off as ‘experimental prose’.

I think of Spider Robinson as a friend, as I do anyone with whom I have spent an evening harmonizing to the tunes of Lennon & McCartney. We’re sharply at odds over politics and religion, but in considerable agreement on matters of what Spider calls litracha, and so I hope he won’t object if I extensively quote something he wrote nearly thirty years ago. This from ‘The Reference Library’ in the February 1978 Analog:

Considering how cerebral our genre is, it’s startling how seldom you hear a reviewer say, ‘I didn’t unnastan it.’

Perhaps it’s precisely because sf is so cerebral these days, so hungry for serious consideration and academic respect, so desperately fleeing the drooling spectre of Buck Rogers, that we have blundered headfirst into the chasm of what my pal Steve Thomas calls the E.N.C. Syndrome. . . . ‘E.N.C.’, of course, refers to the emperor’s new clothes, and the syndrome finds its most perfect expression in the statement, ‘If I don’t understand it, it must be Art.’ God knows that sf is not the only art form to become entangled in the E.N.C. Syndrome—but it’s right up there with the worst of ’em. Remember the first time you admitted to someone that you didn’t understand what the hell was going on in Dhalgren? The timidity with which you confessed to your English teacher that you couldn’t make head nor tale of Barefoot in the Head? The secret shame with which you bounced off a Phil Dick novel? The uneasy suspicion that maybe you just weren’t intellectually rigorous enough to grow, that the New Wave was leaving you behind with the rest of the lowbrows?

Reviewers in particular, me among them, will go to incredible lengths to avoid saying plainly, ‘I didn’t get it.’ Perhaps we fear that saying this will establish us on some fixed point, below the upper levels, on the intellectual hierarchy, and thus disqualify us as critics. Surely a critic ought to be someone who understands everything?

Cow custards.

Now, writers of intellectual pretension use all kinds of monkey tricks to turn out stories that will baffle the critics into submission, but for the most part they rely upon three devices, which I now propose to mock. The first is the irrelevant allusion to obscure sources. In Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler heaped scorn upon the semi-literate apes who afflict us with irrelevant allusions to the commonplace:

There is indeed a certain charm in the grown-up man’s boyish ebullience, not to be restrained by thoughts of relevance from letting the exuberant phrase jet forth. And for that charm we put up with it when one draws our attention to the methodical by telling us that there is method in the madness, though method & not madness is there for all to see, when another’s every winter is the winter of his discontent, when a third cannot complain of the light without calling it religious as well as dim, when for a fourth nothing can be rotten except in the state of Denmark, or when a fifth, asked whether he does not owe you 1/6 for that cabfare, owns the soft impeachment.

We all know people whose conversation, or what is worse, whose writing, is a kind of desolate beach littered with the hulks of unseaworthy clichés that have washed ashore over the years, so that it becomes nearly impossible to pick one’s way along the strand. This is a tiresome kind of scenery, but not half so bad as the bizarre landscape produced by the literary specimen-hunter who specializes in raising ancient and forgotten wrecks to decorate his coastline with.

The irrelevant classical allusion was long favoured for this purpose, for tolerably obvious reasons. Until the late nineteenth century, English universities based their curricula soundly upon the classics, and derided the notion of granting a degree in English on the grounds that it needed no great erudition to master the merely vernacular literature. The would-be literary snob had to furnish his obscurities from Latin and Greek texts, or else be thought dreadfully common and uneducated, and so fail of his intent. This kind of curio-chasing had been going on ever since Hellenistic times, growing more self-referential and more Talmudic with each passing century; the pale final flowering of pagan Roman literature in the fifth century A.D. consisted of little else. Joyce, whose Ulysses is perhaps the most sustained and exhaustive compilation of difficult classical allusions in modern English, would doubtless have been grossly offended to be compared with the fifth-rate poetasters of collapsing Rome, but the comparison, though unfair, stands on its merits.

But once English literature received the approval of academe as a fit study for a liberal-arts major, the field was thrown open to the infinite variety of irrelevant modern allusions. Indeed, some Modernist authors seem to have earned their reputations chiefly by writing gnomic works alluding to sources not merely obscure but entirely unknown, except to an inner circle of cronies and simpatico critics. William Carlos Williams’ most-praised poem, like Mona Lisa’s smile, derives nearly its entire reputation from the fact that it is impossible to tell what it is actually about. As Dave Wolverton wrote in Tangent a few years ago:

The realist movement quickly developed a trend toward elitism, gaining a certain snob appeal, that I find very distasteful.

Under the influence of Ezra Pound, the imagists began writing in the early 1900s. Taking his cue from ancient Chinese monarchs, Pound sought to capture the essence of a story in one or two concise, overpowering images. Thus we end up with poems like this one by William Carlos Williams:

‘The Red Wheelbarrow.’

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Now, for those of you who have never heard that poem before, I beg you, what does it mean? Please tell me. ‘So much depends upon’ it. . . .

Of course you can’t figure it out by studying the text. The clues aren’t there. This poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story (Williams was a doctor, and he wrote the poem one morning after having treated a child who was near death. The red wheelbarrow was her toy.)

Now, this story about the origin of the red wheelbarrow may be true, or it may not. It is at least plausible, unlike the reams of absolute drivel written by academics and critics who simply don’t want to admit the obvious: that the poem is effectively meaningless, because it is impossible to identify its referents from the clues in the exiguous text. Perhaps the poem really does refer to a little girl’s toy, and perhaps it refers to something else. It could even, as Julio Marzán insists, have arisen from a kind of bizarre topological transformation from another of Williams’ poems:

To arrive at ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, Williams translated the relationship between Elena, the poet, and her physical surroundings into visual images. The soul-dead Elena, who held in her hand the empty pitcher from which she had poured out the regenerative vitality of water, is compressed into the idea of something on which so much pende (‘hangs’).

But the smart money is on Wolverton to win, and utter arbitrary meaninglessness to place. Henry M. Sayre notes: ‘It is crucial that Williams’s material is banal, trivial.’ It speaks volumes for the pretension and phoniness of Modernist literary criticism that he actually means to praise Williams by saying it. Surely no emperor was ever so blatantly and admittedly naked.

In the very next paragraph of his article, Wolverton takes a potshot at Joyce’s use of this kind of impenetrable allusion:

Similar elitist fiction was touted as a higher art by James Joyce, who used voice rather than image to astonish his readers. Practically no one today can even understand, much less appreciate the ravings of Irish bar patrons in Joyce’s tales. One student who complained to Joyce that he had read his works and didn’t understand them was told, ‘You can only understand my works if you spend your own lifetime studying mine.’

A study that no sane person, not even Joyce himself, would ever bother to undertake.


Sarah Huntrods recently inflicted one of Brian Aldiss’s lesser books upon me: Report on Probability A. This book was highly acclaimed by the SF literati in its day, for reasons that are now hard to understand until one knows just how slavishly devoted to E.N.C. Syndrome were the critics who praised it. On the back cover, I find these lapidary blurbs:

‘A mindwrenching conception that forces one to question every common notion of human awareness, space-time, and perceptual reality’ —Tribune

‘Devilishly clever . . . . an exuberant imagination meets a passionate intelligence in this text’ —Guardian

In fact, the only thing that a really critical observer would be led to question by this book is whether Mr. Aldiss was in full possession of his faculties when he wrote it. The story, if it can be called that, is ridiculous in the extreme. Three servants, a gardener (‘G’), a chauffeur (‘C’), and a secretary (‘S’), all male, have been dismissed from the service of one Mr. Mary, presumably because they are all madly obsessed with his wife. In page after tedious page, Aldiss describes every least detail as each of them spies upon Mrs. Mary from his hiding-place in the outbuildings of the Marys’ house:

At present the face was in movement; it lay within the circle of vision of the telescope with its mouth at the centre of this circle.

The mouth moved. The lips moved; the lower lip seemed to be plump, yet as it moved it extended itself slightly so as to seem less plump. These lips were viewed through six thicknesses of glass, four consisting of the little lenses in the telescope, one consisting of the square of glass that formed the central panel of the nine glass panels together comprising the round window in front of the old brick building, and one consisting of the openable but closed portion of the kitchen window. So near was this closed portion of the kitchen window to the moving lips that the breath issuing between them had fogged the pane. . . .

And so on and so forth, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. It would be difficult to convey the tedium of this book in a short excerpt; it is all on just this level; in fact, Aldiss returns obsessively, over and over, to the deeply absorbing question of how many thicknesses of glass Mrs. Mary is being watched through. Yet he is incapable of attending to the most obvious details of internal consistency, starting with the important question of point of view.

Ostensibly the ‘report’ is a detailed write-up made by an observer from another dimension, watching G, C, and S, and trying very hard not to make any assumptions about their psychology or even their humanity by superimposing his own prejudices upon the bare facts. (Why did he not simply videotape the observing apparatus, thereby removing all possible elements of the subjective, instead of battling to record in writing merely the things he personally happened to observe? Only, one guesses, because then Aldiss would have no story to tell.) The watchers are watched by watchers from another world, who themselves are being watched, etc., etc. And as far as the plot goes, th-th-that’s all, folks!

So we have occurrences like this among the watchers:

Domoladossa pencilled a note in the margin of the report: ‘She was singing.’

He wanted to add, ‘She was happy,’ but that would be carrying the job of interpretation too far.

And yet this report, supposedly drawn from the excruciatingly objective observations of someone watching the physical movements of G, C, and S through an unspecified interdimensional viewer, contains whoppers like this:

G’s clock had been specifically designed to indicate the passage of time; it was his clock, for he had bought it with part of his wages in the days when Mr. Mary was paying him a weekly fee. On its face, which formed a circle, were the arabic numerals from one to twelve and a pair of hands. The smaller of the two hands pointed at the lower lobe of the figure eight, while the larger hand pointed at the space between the nine and the ten. These two hands had been at these positions, maintaining between them an angle of fifty degrees, for a period of something over eleven months.

Now, we are told elsewhere that the watchers only discovered Probability A a week ago, and that events in Probability A have been moving synchronously with their own subjective time since then. How could they possibly know that the clock has been stopped for eleven months, or that G had bought it with the wages from his long-vanished employment? But it gets worse, for this nonsense immediately follows:

Although, when his attention encompassed the clock, G entertained the theory that the clock still worked, he was reluctant to test the theory by attempting to wind the clock mechanism.

This is probably the closest that Aldiss comes in this dreary book to attempting a joke. At any rate, I smiled slightly when I read it, it was so gratifying to see him unbend for a moment, remembering that he had readers, and condescending to give them a moment’s entertainment. But if the author of the Report could tell all that about G just by observing the movements of his body, he was the greatest mind-reader that his world (or ours) had ever seen. His superiors had no such capacity:

Domoladossa thought, ‘We’ll have to decide. . . . I’ll have to decide — whether these people have human responses.’

He even speculates that the very physics of the air molecules in G’s world may be different from his own. In short, the whole performance is built upon an epistemological assumption that is casually violated on almost every page. It does not hang together, and the text is so excruciatingly boring that none of its parts are worth the trouble of hanging separately.

Now, maybe Tribune’s reviewer had a system of metaphysical beliefs so flimsy that Aldiss’s tedious book-length jape could compel him to fling his philosophy to the winds. Maybe the chap from the Guardian really could find something ‘exuberant’ and ‘passionate’ in a 148-page description of aliens watching paint dry. More likely, I think, they knew that Aldiss was one of the Great Names in British SF at that time, and that to criticize him honestly when he produced a turkey would be more damaging to their own careers than to his; and so they praised the Emperor’scouture to the skies, using the biggest lies that could be forced through the neural pathways to their typing fingers. In every generation, there are a few authors, perhaps a score, who are attended by a sort of halo of intellectual inviolability, and while it lasts, the critical consensus on their work is largely compounded of sycophancy, hagiography, and bollocks.

Now, Aldiss’s obscurity is much less ambitious than Joyce’s, though perhaps comparable to Williams’, for it depends not on recondite references to works that only the elite have read, but on sheer boredom. Few readers could resist the deliberately soporific quality of Aldiss’s prose long enough to spot the obvious fallacies underpinning the work. I would not have bothered myself, had not my friend so earnestly exhorted me to read it and form my own impressions. Well, Sarah and I are agreed: Report on Probability A is rubbish. But like ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and the rest of the arty-pretentious wing of twentieth-century literature, it is rubbish with an ineradicable patina of genius, for it, just like the pseudo-philosophical twaddle of Ayn Rand and Dan Brown, is So Deep. Which, as Spider points out, is often just a way to avoid saying, I don’t unnastan.


  1. For that startlingly accurate description of high school, I can only hail you as a kindred spirit!

    As for comparing Joyce to fifth-rate poetasters, one is tempted to say it is indeed unfair – to the poetasters. I’d rather reread the Malloreon than Ulysses, and that, as we have discussed, is saying quite a mouthful indeed!

    One wonders how long it will take for the entire overblown edifice of modern ‘LITerature’ (as a disgruntled former English major friend of mine puts it) to collapse under its own weight. But given that modern philosophy is still going strong, I fear its life may yet be measured in centuries.

  2. HGSchmidt says

    When you criticize Terry Brooks or Gary Gygax or whomever, you provide detailed arguments copied from copious quotes from the books. It’s all first-rate criticism. On the other hand, when you try to criticize Ayn Rand, you sound like Moorcock criticising Tolkien.

    For example Rand slams altruism because it means sacrifice, and she argues in depth that the modern sacrificial altars are found in the gulag or the furnaces of Ausschwitz. Agree or disagree, but you should at least represent her argument to that extent.

    • Ayn Rand depends for her philosophy on a very simple logical error, namely, ambiguity: she dismisses altruism as infinitely wicked on the grounds that evil men have misused the term. As if one argued that donating to a children’s hospital established by nuns were infinitely wicked on the grounds that it was religion, as were the practices of the Aztecs.

      As one wag put it, Ayn Rand is the philosopher who discovered that the errors of the world were caused by men not being greedy enough.

      The remainder of her philosophy is Aristotelianism, that is, saying the obvious about the obvious, and, in that she does a fine service to those in high school whose minds have been starved of sound philosophy.

      So not much need be said of her. Mr. Simon’s characterization is correct and adequate for the topic he is addressing.

      • HGSchmidt says

        “she dismisses altruism as infinitely wicked on the grounds that evil men have misused the term.”

        This isn’t even “No True Scotsman”. Rand used the term altruism as was used by the man who coined it, Auguste Comte. So, this comment does not rise to the level.

        And yet it is still more of a comment than Simon provides.

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